Boston Globe - December 11, 2007 - David Weininger

Light touch plays well in this 'Scrooge'

Sure, the season is filled with "Messiahs" and carol sings, but another Yuletide musical tradition is taking hold in Boston, thanks to the Firebird Ensemble: The now-annual performance of "The Passion of Scrooge, or A Christmas Carol" by Jon Deak, a composer who's also a bassist in the New York Philharmonic.

Deak's vivid and theatrical retelling of Dickens's well-worn holiday tale casts a solo baritone in the roles of the narrator, Scrooge, Marley, and a few minor characters. It's a part that requires him to both sing and speak, but his chief duty is to convey Scrooge's sneering curmudgeonliness.

The ensemble - 10 players' worth of strings, winds, and percussion - is less an accompanist than a full-fledged, wisecracking participant in the narrative. Deak writes in a flurry of colorful sound effects that guide the story along - you hear the cold wind that follows Scrooge wherever he goes, and the clatter of noise that heralds the appearance of the Christmas ghosts. The percussionist even rattles a chain when Marley's ghost appears. The players are also called on to whisper, heckle, and (of course) lay out a "Bah humbug" or two in the process.

What this all adds up to is a "Passion" that's highly entertaining but also gets at the essence of Dickens's tale without sliding into mawkish sentimentality. It's a well-crafted piece that's smart enough not to take itself too seriously, and it needs performers who can cope with its musical demands without losing sight of its quirky humor. It's hard to imagine another group doing so as well as the intrepid and energetic Firebirds, who were under the direction of conductor Chris Younghoon Kim. Aaron Engebreth sang beautifully and, more importantly, easily bore the dramatic focus of the entire piece. This is the group's fourth year of offering the "Passion," and I hope it'll be around for many more.

As engaging as "Scrooge" is, though, it was nearly upstaged in entertainment value by the afternoon's brief closer, "A Not-So-Traditional Christmas Medley" by Cameron Wilson. This is a piece for string quintet that refracts beloved holiday songs through the composer's slightly twisted imagination. You've probably never thought about cross-breeding "Jingle Bells" with Shostakovich's Eighth String Quartet, but Wilson has, and the result is hilariously cockeyed, as is the entire piece. David Russell, the ensemble's superb cellist, opened the concert by playing a virtuosic series of variations, composed by Mark Summer, of "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming."


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